Voters said “no” to peace in Colombia. What’s next?

A supporter of "Si" vote reacts after the nation voted "No" in a referendum on a peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, at Bolivar Square in Bogota, Colombia, October 2, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino - RTSQGKI

Colombia and the world were shocked Sunday night when a Colombian national referendum on the peace accord with the country’s main leftist guerrilla group rejected the deal. The margin for “no” was razor-thin: With some 13 million people voting, 50.2 percent opposed the deal while 49.8 percent supported it.

The deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC) promised to put an end to one crucial element of Colombia’s civil war that has killed some 220,000 people, displaced at least 6 million, and produced scores of kidnappings, rapes, and torture. That the accord—supported by large segments of the international community—has been derailed is a major loss for Colombia.

Still, the crash of this promising opportunity is no time to give up on peacemaking in Colombia. While it won’t be easy, and perhaps even more difficult to negotiate than the accord Colombians rejected, a viable deal can yet be resurrected. But it will be a deal’s eventual implementation, as I have written in a new paper, that will determine whether peace or merely reshaped violence comes to Colombia.

A win for the right

Killing the deal is a major victory for Colombia’s former President Álvaro Uribe and far-right politicians. Uribe, who has defined his political career by the objective of militarily defeating the FARC, has said that “peace is an illusion,” and actively plotted against the deal ever since negotiations began in 2012. Uribe characterizes the deal as giving amnesty and leniency to FARC leaders and members, whom he insists should be tried as murderers and drug traffickers.

He has mobilized opposition to the deal among the Colombian public on the basis of its being too weak a retribution against the FARC’s crimes. Ironically, however, the Justice and Peace Law he orchestrated in 2005 with Colombia’s very brutal paramilitaries levied hardly greater punishments on murderers, torturers, and major drug traffickers. Yes, many of the top paramilitary leaders and key drug traffickers who bought themselves comandante positions in the paramilitary umbrella organization United Self-Defenders of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) eventually ended up in U.S. prison. But their eventual incarceration in the United States only occurred because they kept violating the lenient prison terms they got in the deal in Colombia, including by continuing to run drugs and death squads from their Colombian cells. The quality of their imprisonment in Colombia amounted to a de facto house arrest—a punishment Uribe has been mobilizing the Colombian public to oppose in the recent deal with the FARC. Even so, many Colombians believe that Uribe countenanced shipping the key AUC leaders off to the United States to prevent them from revealing their political connections and ensnaring elite political circles and government officials.

Uribe and his cohorts would indeed bear significant costs of the peace deal under the signed, but now rejected, accord: Although the FARC may have received lenient terms, the deal also committed the government and the guerrillas, and in fact, the entire country, to a significant transformation of society, the state, and power relations in Colombia. Although democratic rules would have not been altered in any way, the accord committed the state and Colombian people to develop the long-neglected, marginalized, and festering rural periphery as well as urban slums. At the core of the deal lay a complex and difficult to execute, but admirable promise to make the Colombian society more inclusive and more equitable. Traditional landed elites and far right politicians, such as those around Uribe, would thereby lose some of their economic and political power. Yet Colombia’s middle class, newly-emerged, fragile, and vulnerable, would bear the financial costs of the promised social transformation, at least in the absence of a major tax reform toward greater equity.

[T]he deal…committed the government and the guerrillas, and in fact, the entire country, to a significant transformation of society, the state, and power relations in Colombia.

Resuscitating a good deal

This deal has fallen through, but that doesn’t mean that Colombia is doomed to more fighting. The first step is to maintain the ceasefire with the FARC and avoid an outbreak of a hot shooting war, including provocations that escalate into shooting incidents and deaths. Both the Colombian government and the FARC leadership committed themselves to maintaining the ceasefire last night, after the referendum results came in. The FARC leadership outright rejected returning to a war, emphasizing instead that they remain committed to a future as a political party, not a guerrilla group. That is admirable and will be tested in the next phase, particularly in the face of provocations, such as by politically-linked bandas criminales, who may be hired to spark an incident and discredit any peace deal. Moreover, maintaining control over the FARC’s middle-level commanders, who have the most to lose from the peace deal and face many uncertainties, will be a challenge.

Second, the government and the FARC need to re-frame the next set of conversations around justice. The government and the international community will need to emphasize to the FARC that for the sake of peace in the country and a political future for their group—perhaps including a Nobel Price for the Santos administration, which it could share with the FARC—the FARC leadership will need to accept some tougher accountability and repentance. The FARC has long talked about “justice,” particularly in the form of economic development for the marginalized periphery. It now needs to demonstrate that if it is asking for justice, it must also be prepared to accept a greater degree of political and juridical justice for its past behavior—not just expect forgiveness. The FARC must realize that the chance of achieving a peace deal is much better now, during the Santos administration, than if a rightist politician with Uribe’s backing is elected president in 2018.

The Santos administration must do several things. First, it must control the renegotiation agenda, and most of the deal should not be reopened. The only issues for renegotiations should be those that tripped up the deal with the Colombian public—presumably the matter of justice. Although Santos has already reached out to Uribe, keeping him at arms’ length might be wise. Uribe demands justice of the FARC, but may in fact be seeking to avoid justice, equity, and inclusiveness for himself and Colombia’s landed elites. And the Santos administration needs to start tackling the politics of a new deal with the Colombian public from now on. It shares blame for leaving the politics to the last minute and not doing its political homework much earlier.

For years, Colombia has tried to export to the Philippines its imperfect model of demobilizing paramilitaries (out of which many of the current violent criminal bands in Colombia emerged). Perhaps now it is the time to learn from the Philippines. There, national peace deals with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were subverted by rightist politicians several times through legislative and judicial processes. Yet perseverance and a long-term commitment—including across generations—as well as determined leadership have managed to bring a peace deal back in the Philippines. Its sustainment and implementation are crucial, and are yet to be seen. But although the no-vote in Colombia is a huge setback for peace in the country, it does not have to be its death knell.